TERRE HAUTE– New COVID-19 cases in rural and small city areas of Indiana now generally outpace urban areas, with rural hospitals nearing capacity, according to reports of Hoosier rural hospital CEOs. “COVID-19 hit hard in rural areas this fall and is straining our rural hospitals and acute care facilities,” said Cara Veale, chief executive officer of the Indiana Rural Health Association (IRHA). “This represents an alarming trend and our Hoosier residents in rural towns need to quickly step up personal prevention and safety efforts.”
As of Nov. 24, the Indiana State Department of Health reported 306,538 confirmed cases of COVID-19, adding an additional 5,702 cases to the state’s total. The agency also reported 103 new COVID-19 deaths, raising the mortality level to 5,169.
The national Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) warns that COVID-19 cases and death rates in rural areas of the United States have outstripped urban areas since the late summer. “As the Indiana State Department of Health has documented, the case numbers in rural areas are going in the wrong direction,” said Veale. “They’re soaring above new cases in urban areas, and hospital administrators tell me and the IRHA staff that rural hospitals and clinics reflect that worrisome fact on a statewide basis.”
Both rural and urban hospitals now face near-capacity levels as the state enters the Thanksgiving holiday season. The trend is worsened by medical staff storages, as hundreds of medical professionals have contracted the virus or are sheltering after direct exposure.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb earlier urged Hoosiers to renew their efforts to take preventive measures. “We must do all we can to protect our hospital capacity,” the Governor said in a press briefing earlier this month.
Veale, who holds a Fellowship in the American College of Healthcare Executives (FACHE), warns that her colleagues at rural hospitals across Indiana are “gravely concerned” about the neglect of rural residents not taking appropriate steps to protect themselves or others.
“This unfortunate neglect helps drive the current surge, where numerous counties in Indiana recently turned red with multiple jumps in coronavirus cases,” continued Veale. “The plain and harsh fact is that if people – rural and urban alike – don’t mask up, don’t socially distance and assemble in unprotected groups, they increase their personal risks of infection, which we’re seeing lead to potential severe cases, even death.”
People living in rural areas tend to reflect health-related issues that heighten their risk if they are exposed to and come down with the coronavirus. More rural residents smoke, have cardiac and respiratory issues, are overweight and diabetic than their counterparts in Indiana urban areas, which makes them more at risk of hospitalization or severe symptoms.
“The independent nature of many living in rural areas tends to intensify some of these risks,” said Veale, who previously was a hospital executive at Daviess Community Hospital in Washington, a rural city in southwest Indiana. “People in rural areas like their independent lifestyles and many live multiple miles away from hospitals, clinics or physician offices, which can lead to neglecting important health care needs.”
Many counties are also medically underserved in Indiana, and thousands of rural Hoosiers don’t have healthcare insurance, which also contributes to unhealthy lifestyles.
“I’ve lived in rural areas for many years and I know people like this – they’re good people,” said Veale. “But many rural people in this current pandemic don’t like wearing masks and may not fully appreciate the risks they face or contribute to by not observing safety measures.”
The IRHA CEO joins rural hospital CEOs and medical professionals across Indiana in urgently encouraging all residents, and especially rural residents, to mask up, socially distance and forego the assembling together in large groups, whether friends or family.
“We in the medical profession understand the wearisome toll this pandemic year has taken on all of us,” Veale said. “This holiday season let us use common sense – let’s understand that taking safety precautions doesn’t take away our freedoms, it preserves our freedoms as we all take steps to end this pandemic.”
About the Indiana Rural Health Association
The Indiana Rural Health Association was organized in 1997 and is a nonprofit organization working to enhance the health and well-being of rural populations in Indiana through leadership, education, advocacy, collaboration, and resource development. The strength of the organization is through the present diverse membership and the founding organizers who are committed to impacting the health of citizens through the identification of rural health issues and through advocacy roles in both the public and private sectors. IRHA membership is made up of 3,300 diverse individuals and organizations, making it the largest state rural health association in the nation, and a nationally recognized leader in rural health care. For more information, visit www.indianaruralhealth.org.